By Becky Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
Nature in art. Art in nature. Bonsai.
No need to explain nature here in the Pacific Northwest. But what is art? What is bonsai? The new exhibit, ‘Living Art of Bonsai: Elements of Design,’at the Pacific Bonsai Museum (PBM) opened on Apr. 21 and ends Sept. 30. It explores the connection between art and bonsai. The outdoor museum, located at 2515 South 336th Street in Federal Way, sits in a woodland setting of towering conifers and exotic
Bonsai is the ancient art of cultivating containerized trees into miniature representation of larger ones in nature. No, it isn’t dwarfing of trees, nor is it topiary. The art form originated as pengjing in China and brought to Japan by Buddhist monks in the 6th century. In Chinese, peng
means tray, jing means scene.
According to curator Aarin Packard, Chinese literati practiced pengjing to create a three dimensional form of classical Chinese ink paintings, complete with figurines. The scene, duplicating the painting, conveyed man as part of nature.
Traditional Japanese Shintoism defies nature. The Japanese embraced pengjing, but gradually turned their focus onto the tree itself. They removed traces of human reference so that only the purity of nature remains. Bonsai is the Japanese pronunciation of the chinese words peng (tray) zai (cultivation).
Exhibits in Japan helped popularize bonsai internationally. In the United States, Japanese immigrants operated the first bonsai nurseries.
Packard explained, “Art is a reflection of culture.” American bonsai is slowly progressing from imitation to creating its own style, as technical proficiency increases. Packard hopes the museum’s new exhibit will spark conversations and show visitors a different way to appreciate bonsai. “It is not just an old tree in a pot.”
He explained that bonsai helps people see the world around them with a different eye, not just connection to nature or historical Asian traditions.
Through its bonsai specimens, Packard said the museum aims to remove immediate association to any one culture. There are no Japanese lanterns and no Chinese paintings in the museum. It’s next door to a garden, but not a garden itself. Its specimens are art objects.
Besides the trees, the exhibit utilizes art references and information panels to educate and expose visitors to elements of design. Explains one of the panels, “Line: a path that connects a series of points in space …. Lines guide your eye around a work of art.” Different lines can create different feelings. Horizontal lines suggest calm and stability. Vertical lines give upward lift.
Manipulation of the space around the tree reveals other elements to the viewers. It brings out the texture and shape of the tree. It may lead the viewer to see the form and color more clearly.
Several display alcoves have colored walls to help direct viewers’ eyes to the geometric or organic shapes of the tree. Packard said that in bonsai, a balance between the two is important. Some level of organization of these shapes must exist to influence how the tree is seen.
The PBM is one of only two museums in the country that focuses solely on bonsai. The other is the National Bonsai Museum at the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C. But PBM is the only autonomous institution that isn’t attached to another in the United States. Most bonsai collections are connected to a garden or arboretum.
The museum is a nonprofit organization. According to its website, Weyerhaeuser established a bonsai collection in 1989 to symbolize the company’s long-term commitment to the community. In 2013, the corporation gifted the entire collection to a new nonprofit, the George Weyerhaeuser Pacific Rim Bonsai Collection, known as Pacific Bonsai Museum.
There is a new exhibit every year to engage visitors with the museum’s collection. Packard hopes the community sees value and reason for its existence in the museum.
You can see for yourself by attending the exhibit. You will learn they that coexist harmoniously, art and bonsai. Perhaps you will come away with a new perspective in how you see your world.
The museum opens Tuesday – Sunday, 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. Admission is by donation.
For more information, visit pacificbonsaimuseum.org.
Becky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.